Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, May 26, 2021: Baked New Hampshire
Here we see the lead ship of the Ossipee-class sloop of war, USS Ossipee, off Honolulu in the then-Kingdom of Hawaiʻi during the Kamehameha dynasty, with her crew manning the yards, in early 1867. Our sloop would range far and wide in her naval service, including damming the torpedoes and coping with fainting Russian princesses.
Built for the budding war between the states, the four vessels of the Ossipee-class were wooden-hulled steam-powered warships of some 1,200 tons, running some 207 feet long overall. With a ~140-man crew, they were designed to carry a 100-pounder Parrott pivot gun, an 11-inch Dahlgren shell gun, a trio of 30-pounder rifles, six 32-pounders, and a couple of 12-pounders, giving them the nominal rank of a 13-gun sloop.
Class leader Ossipee was laid down at Portsmouth Naval Yard in Kittery, Maine in June 1861, just as the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the Shenandoah were being formed, while her sisters USS Adirondack, USS Housatonic, and USS Juniata, were subsequently laid down the Navy Yards in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, respectively and near-simultaneously.
The class was named for geographical features i.e., mountains and rivers, with Ossipee being the first (and thus far only) Navy warship to carry the name of the Ossipee River that runs through New Hampshire and part of Maine.
Commissioned on 6 November 1862, Ossipee spent a few months with the North Atlantic Squadron before shipping south on 18 May 1863 to join Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron off Mobile, Alabama. While operating in the Northern Gulf, she pulled off a hattrick of captures, hauling over the schooner Helena on 30 June and the blockade runners James Battle and William Bagley two weeks later, with the latter two packed with cotton and headed abroad.
Damn the Torpedos!
On the early morning of 5 August 1864, Ossipee was part of the 14-vessel task force assigned to sweep Mobile Bay, pushing past Battery Powell and Forts Gaines and Morgan at the mouth of the Bay, despite the threat of underwater torpedoes (mines).
Besides the mines, Farragut had to face off and do combat with the fearsome albeit semi-complete Confederate ironclad ram CSS Tennessee. During the engagement, Ossipee suffered 1 killed (SN Owen Manes) and 7 wounded, mostly with splinter wounds, against the fleet’s total losses of 135 dead (including 94 who went down with the Canonicus-class monitor USS Tecumseh, one of 43 American vessels sunk by rebel mines in the conflict) and 88 sent to the surgeon.
At the end of the morning, Farragut’s fleet had lost Tecumseh to causes still not fully known but captured the gunboat CSS Selma with 90 officers and men as well as the battered CSS Tennessee, with 190 officers and men aboard to include Confederate ADM. Franklin Buchanan. Tennessee’s skipper, CDR James D. Johnson, was a prisoner on Ossipee by dusk on the 5th. Just out of Farragut’s reach, the sinking gunboat CSS Gaines lay grounded and abandoned.
Ossipee went down in history as being the last Union ship to get a bite at Tennessee, moving in to ram the rebel ironclad in the final moments before Johnson poked up a white flag from her wheelhouse. Unfortunately, the momentum of the sloop continued under Newton’s first law of motion and collided with the surrendered beast.
Once Mobile had been neutralized as a rebel port, Ossipee continued her service in the Gulf enforcing the blockade off Texas and was in Union-held New Orleans in April 1865 when the side-wheel steam ram CSS Webb, darted out of the Red River and made a break for the sea via the Mississippi and gave pursuit along with other vessels with the nimble Webb ending her run burned out and abandoned by her crew.
To the Frozen North
Laid up briefly after the war, Ossipee was one of the luckier of her class. Sister Adirondack had been lost on a reef in the Bahamas in August 1862 while looking for blockade runners. Sister Housatonic made naval history (in a bad way) by becoming the first warship sunk by an enemy submarine when CSS H.L. Hunley took her to the bottom with her off Charleston, South Carolina, 17 February 1864. Only Juniata, who had spent most of the Civil War ranging the seas in search of Confederate raiders, remained.
Like Juniata, Ossipee would soon see more of the earth than the Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Seaboard.
Recommissioned 27 October 1866, she was sent to the Pacific to show the flag from Central America to Alaska, then a Tsarist territory.
Following the “folly” of U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward’s treaty with Russia for the purchase of what would eventually become the 49th state for $7.2 million in gold, Ossipee was dispatched from San Francisco in September 1867 to affect the transfer. Accompanied by the third-rate gunboat USS Resaca (9 guns), who had been in Alaskan waters since August, the two vessels were on hand of the transfer on Castle Hill at Sitka (then population: 1,500) on October 18, 1867. There, Prince Dmitry Petrovich Maksutov, commissioner of the Tsar and Russian Governor of the territory, formally transferred all of Alaska to Brig. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau, commissioner for the United States.
Some 200 American troops, in Yankee blue, stood at attention across from a smaller number of Russian soldiers on opposite sides of the flagpole with the Russian flag dropped, and the American raised to a slow 21-gun cannon salute from Ossipee and the Russian coastal battery. Princess Maria Maksutova was famously supposed to have fainted during the transfer, as the Russian flag became stuck during the ceremony and had to be removed rather unceremoniously, although Emmons’s account dispels the fainting trope.
Following the Sitka transfer, Ossipee would spend several years in the North Atlantic squadron. It was during this period that one of her crew, SN James Benson, would earn a rare peacetime Medal of Honor with his citation reading “Onboard the USS Ossipee, 20 June 1872. Risking his life, Benson leaped into the sea while the ship was going at a speed of 4 knots and endeavored to save John K. Smith, landsman, of the same vessel, from drowning.”
Ossipee would pick up the two-year-long Selfridge Expedition to the Isthmus of Darien (Panama) which we have covered before.
Ossipee was involved in the 1873 Virginius affair with Spain after the fact, towing the notorious vessel back after the Spanish released it while her filibustering/insurgent crew would remain in custody in Havanna.
Following more time in ordinary, Ossipee would once again ship off for the Pacific, remaining on Asiatic station from April 1884 to February 1887 when she arrived back in New York.
On her return, she was visited by E.H. Hart, a New York-based photographer who catered to postcard companies, and he captured her crew and decks in time. Her log held at the time that she was a 3rd rate sloop of 8 guns.
With the old wooden-hulled ship increasingly anachronistic in the new steel Navy, Ossipee was decommissioned at Norfolk on 12 November 1889 and sold there on 25 March 1891 to Herbert H. Ives.
Ossipee’s only sister to make it out of the Civil War, USS Juniata, would famously circumnavigate the globe in 1882-85 under the command of young CDR George Dewey, but her fate was coupled to Ossipee in the end, being sold off to Mr. Ives on the same day in 1891, who no doubt got a deal.
Ossipee is preserved in maritime art
Finally, every October 18th is regularly celebrated in “The Last Frontier,” as Alaska Day, complete with a reenactment ceremony and parade in Sitka.
Displacement 1,240 t.
Depth of Hold 16′ 10″
one 100-pdr Parrott rifle
one 11″ Dahlgren smoothbore
three 30-pdr Dahlgren rifles
one heavy 12-pdr smoothbore
one 12-pdr rifle
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